Vaughan sits atop star-filled leaderboard at Fox Chapel

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June 28, 2012
Larry Dorman, PGATOUR.COM

FOX CHAPEL, Pa. -- Maybe one thing could have improved the first round leaderboard at the Constellation SENIOR PLAYERS Championship in this Steeltown suburb. If local legend Arnold Palmer were to have come out of retirement for the week, made the 45-minute drive over from Latrobe and shot a little 64 for old times sake, that would have done it.

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Otherwise, the season's third major on the Champions Tour had most of the elements that make the Champions Tour worth watching: a glittering array of mega-stars, regular stars and memorable players from past eras; a vintage 1923 Seth Raynor-designed Fox Chapel Golf Club making its debut; a sweltering summer day evocative of Arnie's final U.S. Open in '94 at nearby Oakmont Country Club.

OK, so no one is likely to confuse first-round leader, Bruce Vaughan, with Arnie -- though the strapping former Firefighter from Kankakee, Ill., does have the same September 10 birthday as The King and a bit of the same blue-collar appeal.

And he did shoot a bogey-free, 6-under-par 64 for a one-stroke lead over Fred Funk and a two-stroke lead over the Champions Tour marquee duo of Fred Couples, the defending SENIOR PLAYERS Champion, and Tom Lehman, the 2011 Player of the Year and Charles Schwab Cup winner. He's also three strokes ahead of 57-year-old Greg Norman, who flashed some of the old Great White magic with an impressive 67 in just his 12th Champions Tour appearance and his first this year.

With all that firepower arrayed against him, Vaughan -- who had never seen the golf course before this week -- reveled in the role of the longshot Golf Everyman. He made some putts Arnie would have been been proud of -- like the 30-footer at the third hole and a 20-footer with 6 feet of break at No. 15 -- and birdied the final hole by getting up and down from the bunker.

"When greens are this fast you've got to have a really big imagination," Vaughn said, flashing a toothy grin.

You need a pretty big imagination just to imagine Bruce Vaughn holding up for 72 holes. He didn't start playing golf until the age of 20. He never won on the PGA TOUR, never made the cut in a major championship on the big tour.

But he did battle his way through the 2006 Champions Tour Qualifying School and, two years later, made his first -- and so far only -- win on the Champions Tour the 2008 Senior British Open at Royal Troon in Scotland, defeating John Cook.

"It's just the first round," he said. "It's a matter of doing it for three more days. I think I can, I've done it before, but it's a matter of going out and doing it."

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We'll leave Bruce to his reverie for a few moments and tune into what drew some impressive galleries out to the Pittsburgh suburbs on a very warm day. First, they came for Couples, sauntering as usual through the sauna, his demeanor cool, no sign of sweat in 90-degree temperatures by the time he reached the 18th hole at 3-under-par.

Also, as usual, Couples was stretching out his back, still nursing some soreness from the combination of treatment he received last week in Los Angeles and late Wednesday finish to the Wednesday pro-am and early start on Thursday. Couples nonetheless finished with no bogeys and four birdies, saving his best for last at the par-five 18th.

After a big drive of some 330 yards, he cut a soaring 3-wood some 245 yards into the hot breeze, leaving a makeable 15-footer for eagle. He missed it, but tapped in for birdie and felt fortunate to be finished.

"I feel lucky I got through this round with that score," he said. "I have a lot of rest before tomorrow. I'm really, really stiff, though. I don't know exactly what's going on and I'm not getting too much sleep, so I'm not really feeling very well."

Tough to tell that from the way he played. Also tough to tell that Norman had been away from competition for so long by the way he settled down after a bogey at the first hole. His highlight film included two putts for birdie at No. 2, an 18-foot, downhill slider at the ninth, holed a 45-footer at the 11th, and pitched it stone dead from the front of the 18th to finish with a birdie.

"All of us walk off the golf course and say we could have made a few more putts, but nothing has changed from 30 years ago," said Norman, who might have a few more gray hairs and wrinkles but looks as physically fit now as he did then.

And, really, that's all part of why people still come out to watch these men of a certain age play golf. That they can so closely approximate, at times, what they did in their youth as they approach their 60s, is nearly as amazing as the shots they hit with persimmon-headed drivers and balata golf balls.

Tom Watson goes around in even par, Mark Calcavecchia floats a dead hand pitch from the high rough into the eighth hole, and the ball rolls out 50 feet and nearly goes in the hole, Tom Lehman shoots 30 going out, bogeys two holes in a row at 11 and 12 and birdies the last for a 66. Hale Irwin, at age 67, shoots 72 with a double-bogey.

These guys are still good. And so is the show they put on. If Bruce Vaughan can beat them, he'll have two wins, both of them majors, and a whole lot of respect.

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